Why it’s important to fund unconventional health research

by Nicky Pellegrino / 02 February, 2018
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Less than 10 years from now, we will have a world-leading system of health research and innovation that will improve the well-being of all of us. That’s the grand vision of this country’s first Health Research Strategy, and among those ensuring it becomes a reality is Professor Kathryn McPherson.

For the past three years, she has been the chief executive of the Health Research Council (HRC), the agency that distributes government funding to research projects. The work of roughly 2500 researchers is at least partly financed by the council, which awards about 90 new contracts a year. Still, morale has been pretty low in the health science community because funding has been static – or, in real terms, falling.

“I think everybody recognises there hasn’t been enough money,” says McPherson, a former researcher and health professional whose background is in nursing and psychology. “That’s why I took the job – in frustration that there had been no change in investment in a decade.”

Some good science wasn’t happening because there wasn’t enough in the kitty to pay for it. It had got to the point where only nine of every 100 funding applications were being granted. That’s much too low, says McPherson, when most developed countries would be aiming for a 15-20% approval rate.

Worryingly, the funding squeeze was threatening to stifle the more innovative ideas. “When you’ve got really tight funding, even the assessors become very cautious and the science almost has to be perfect before it gets through. Perfect science by definition is pretty low-risk and can be very conservative.”

In 2013, the HRC responded by introducing so-called Explorer Grants – funding unconventional projects that have a good chance of making a significant change to how healthcare is managed. Two years later, shortly after McPherson joined the council, a strategic refresh of the agency was announced to make sure it was delivering. That led to funding being increased by 56% over four years, taking it from $77 million to $120 million by 2020.

Kathryn McPherson.

Some health research can take decades to produce a meaningful outcome, but it seems that the public still sees it as a worthwhile investment. A 2017 opinion poll by advocacy group New Zealanders for Health Research showed 76% of respondents thought increasing funding was more important than reducing crime or lowering taxes.

The HRC is now focusing on what research can be done today to make a difference in the years ahead.

“We have some emerging threats and need to be ready to address those,” says McPherson. “There’s a lot of concern about antimicrobial resistance and the fact we’re running out of antibiotics that work for some health conditions. There’s healthier ageing – people are living longer and want to be living well, not sicker and more disabled. And in New Zealand we have an issue around health inequity. What are we going to do about that?”

There’s now a 15% success rate for applications to the HRC and McPherson aims to improve on that. Of course, there are other funders of health research, including some charities, but science is an expensive business and not every project can be financed. McPherson is used to getting calls from disappointed applicants and to fielding criticism about the way money is distributed. University of Otago research suggested there was far more spent on women’s health than on men’s, though the HRC denies this, pointing out that many areas of investment, such as suicide and traumatic brain injury, aren’t identified as specifically male problems although they affect considerably more men than women. “And most of the research we invest in is for both genders,” says McPherson.

Now that our first Health Research Strategy is being implemented, her ongoing challenge is to fund the most worthwhile science and collaborate with other government agencies to make sure it has a wide impact.

“The strategy is challenging the science sector and asking, ‘Are we choosing the right things? Will they make a better world, a better New Zealand and create better health?’” says McPherson. “And I think that’s pretty exciting.”

This article was first published in the January 20, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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